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The Uncivil Servant: Corbyn and Sanders as Fruits of Our Defeat

Mitchell Abidor
September 9, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

corbynTHE SMASHING VICTORY of Jeremy Corbyn in the contest for leadership of the Labour Party has been compared to the Bernie Sanders moment here in the U.S. These men of clear leftwing principles, who stand up for those principles without any concern for polls, do indeed have much in common, though of course the immediate difference is apparent: Corbyn is now the head of the leading opposition party in Parliament, while we can only hope we’ll live so long as to see Sanders as the Democratic standard-bearer. Also different is just how unblemished Corbyn’s record is as a leftist: There is no chance he would ever support the Israeli carnage in Gaza or gun rights, as Sanders has done. In fact, compared to Corbyn, Sanders is almost Hillary Clinton.

Yet we shouldn’t delude ourselves and think that either figure is a sign of a resurgent left in the two countries. Although the two men speak for a diffuse anger in the populace, I think, paradoxically, that their popularity is evidence of the strength of the right.

I happened to be in England, speaking before lefty audiences, after the last, disastrous British elections, when Labour took such a horrific pummeling, and everyone I met expressed their depression and anger. What had gone wrong?

Similarly, in America the Republicans continue to set the agenda, and their lunacy and wrong-headedness is expressed everywhere.

Why the rise of Bernie and Corbyn just now? The answer has a common source in our defeats and relatively small numbers.

IN THE UK, from Blair on, Labour has been little better than Tory Lite. Privatizing, gutting of the National Health Service, austerity, war, and the raising of college fees — all of this was carried out under Labour. In an effort to beat the Tories, Labour under Ed Miliband — the son of the great revolutionary Marxist scholar Ralph Miliband — did little to make their differences from the Tories starkly clear. Presented the choice between Tories and pseudo-Tories, voters went for the real thing.

Similarly, with the exception of the far left, most progressives in the U.S. had faith in Obama — a candidate with the air of someone interested in making real changes. Overconfident, and foolishly thinking the Republicans could ever accept a black man as president, Obama thought he could build bipartisan consensus and soon we’d all be marching into a shining future. Until only a year ago, he acted like a Clinton and demoralized many of those who had voted for him — confirming the notion that there’s little to be expected from someone who decides to play politics.

In both the U.S. and the UK, the quiescent and acquiescent left seems to have learned from defeat and decided that you can present a progressive agenda without being anachronistic or dogmatic. In electing Corbyn, the British Labour membership has decided that the time has come for Labour to be the party of labor and the common people. In America, the Sanders campaign shows that progressives are tired of supporting someone who sort of kind of maybe looks like he or she is one of us. We stand for something, and maybe we should support those who represent those stands.

Most people who support Corbyn know that he isn’t going to sweep the next elections, and though we Bernie-ites are hopeful Clinton will implode — which has to be added to Sanders’ explosion for him to win — it likely won’t happen.

Still, I am working for his campaign. At least, in both cases, if we lose, we lose fighting for what we believe in. And while fighting, we are given an audience for ideas and proposals that are almost always marginalized. Although I no longer wholeheartedly support Eugene Debs’ position that “it’s better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it,” there’s something to it here.

In a world where the horizons are blocked, even though we are few in number, we’ve drawn a lesson from our failures, and that’s quite simply that we won’t be fooled again. There are worse fruits of defeat than Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.